“A division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” Given Founding Father John Adams’ words, America’s modern political landscape may confuse many. The country has since grown into a split nation, disunited by parties instead of ideologies.
While the bipartisan system goes back centuries, its threats today are recent. We have grown accustomed to the deep rift between Democrats and Republicans. However, for most of the United States’ history, the parties were considered too close together, giving balloters a very small variety of voting options.
Until the 2010 midterms, the Venn diagram of the two parties’ ideologies contained a fair share of overlapping. This allowed them to bargain with each other and split their own group into multiple sub-sections of differing ideologies. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, both parties even had their own liberal and conservative sides, each completely unique to other clusters within the same party. However, past elections, new technologies and political scandals have driven an unreconcilable wedge between the two.
Limitation to two parties forces everyone to side with either black or white, coffee or tea, sweet or sour. Nothing written in the Constitution inherently requires a two-party system. Not only are the extremely finite options completely unrepresentative of the general public’s opinions, but the lack of choices also makes a permanent majority much more likely. This would in turn fuel a large amount of finances into said party alone, making it even more powerful.
Stalemate for both parties
Democrats dominate cities, while Republicans are mainly present in the suburbs. Targeting specifically these areas over the past three decades has given both parties roughly equal electoral strength. This means Washington is constantly up for grabs. At first glance, this may seem beneficial, as neither party can overthrow the other. However, this geographical and cultural split as well as the consistently close elections reinforce each other.
Both parties now desperately try to cling to power by pursuing a top-down leadership, enforcing strict party discipline and refusing any cross-partisan deal making. Neither stands a chance of becoming the authoritative ruler in the future, but this results in almost no political progress. The main focus of each party is to destroy their opponent, regardless of any overlapping ideologies.
American politics is caught in a gridlock. Neither side is willing to compromise, as one party’s loss is the other party’s gain. Ultimately, parties will put their own self-interests over the interest of the people. Citizens have no choice but to vote for them anyway. Candidates drawn to third party ideologies, such as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, must choose between pre-existing, narrow party borders. While they may manage to shake up the party structure a little, they are unable to really divulge from it.
Third parties and independents
Parties are actually very important aspects of democracies. They represent, unite and engage a diverse range of citizens, structure politics and limit voting choices to a manageable amount. However, many other countries rely on a system of more than just two parties. This seems to generally appeal more to citizens. Two thirds of Americans claim that neither Democrats nor Republicans do an adequate job at representing the people. In the 2016 election, 58% of Americans wanted a third candidate. They felt that neither of the given candidates showcased the people’s true needs and desires.
While third parties and independents exist, they have very little impact on the grand scheme of things. Media and other politicians usually dismiss or ignore them. Only two out of the 535 members of Congress are neither Democrat nor Republican. No third party has won a single electoral college vote since the 1950s.
Many see voting third party as almost sinful. Next to the persistent “wasted votes” propaganda, ruling parties constantly remind citizens to vote tactically, not for what they truly believe in. In the 2020 election, when many young voters felt deeply critical of Joe Biden, the Democratic party insisted that “getting Trump out” was more important than considering the damage their candidate could inflict on the country. With a lack of other options, most of these voters eventually begrudgingly agreed, letting the two-party system reinforce itself.
In the 1990s, independent Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in the general election – almost one in five people voted for him – yet he received zero electoral college votes. By functioning on a “if you’re not first, you’re last” basis, which means that third parties gain relatively little from votes without electoral colleges, the American political system discourages participation. Outside of already established, wealthy parties and political families, most cannot get the resources or media coverage to effectively compete. Other countries have tried to handle this issue by adopting voting systems that rely on parties over candidates or ranked voting systems. These methods give citizens more room to choose both tactically and emotionally.
Contrary to what the establishment would have you believe, however, voting third party is not a “wasted vote.” Not only do long-shot votes aid in name recognition and attention to third parties, they also bring in financial support for future campaigning and elections. Small parties have very little resources. Media ignores them, making it very hard to efficiently campaign. Strategic voting reinforces bipartisanship. The only way to rebel against it is to build room for the new.
The only thing Republicans and Democrats still agree on is that they will do everything in their power to stop others from gaining traction and thus becoming viable competitors to them. As these two parties control legislation, which defines the rules for third parties, they can effectively block them from entering the market. The silencing of third parties is achieved through gerrymandering, which means moving the borders of electoral colleges, favouring the parties already in power. Large parties also have the resources to easily destroy smaller parties’ campaigns.
Variety everywhere but in politics
We live in a culture that shifts extremely quickly. It feels like new, life-changing technologies are released every week. Yet we still rely on the same two parties to dictate our political landscape as we have for decades, thereby demanding no change, no growth, no diversity.
More parties offer more representation. The idea that two sides are enough to speak for a country of over 330 million people seems almost absurd. If competition is necessary for our economy, then why not for our politics?
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